Have you ever had one of those dreams where you're underwater and your lungs are bursting for air, but just as you make it to the surface something pushes you back down again? And you realize you may never be able to take a full breath? That's pretty much how I felt as I stared opened-mouthed at Ramirez, gasping for air as I tried to respond.
"His…his…wife?" Richard was so not married. It couldn't be true. It had to be wrong. They had to have the wrong Richard. There was no way my boyfriend would be married and not tell me. I knew Richard. Okay, fine, I'll admit it was turning out I didn't know everything about him. But I knew him well enough to know he couldn't be married to some bimbo named Amy.
"Look, there must be some kind of mistake. Richard is not married. I'm sorry, but your information is wrong."
Ramirez kept his poker face on, his only reaction a slight narrowing of his eyes. "You didn't know he was married?"
I spun around, my hands flying to my hips, my voice rising several octaves into a range I'm sure my Irish Catholic grandmother would deem inappropriate for a bridal salon. "Do I look like the kind of girl who dates married men?"
Ramirez looked me up and down. He was wise enough not to answer.
"Look, I don't know who this Amy is, but Richard isn't married," I protested again.
Ramirez dropped the poker face, the lines in his jaw softening. On anyone else it might have been pity. But I had a feeling Bad Cop didn't do pity.
"So, who is this Amy person?" I asked. Yes, I have a morbid sense of curiosity.
"You really want to know?"
He sighed, almost like he didn't want to tell me any more than I wanted to hear it. "Her maiden name is Amy Blakely. She lives in Anaheim, in a duplex owned by your boyfriend. She works as Cinderella at Disneyland."
I felt my eye begin to twitch. Richard was married to freaking Cinderella?
Ramirez continued. "Their marriage license was filed in OrangeCounty just over two years ago."
"Maybe they got divorced? Maybe she's an ex-wife?" I asked. Only I was beginning to sound really desperate. Like a gambler playing her last chip. If only it landed on red this time, Richard would be single, Amy would be a figment of Ramirez's imagination, and everything would be okay.
Ramirez shook his head. "We haven't found any record of a divorce. And considering Richard bought a new Z3 for his wife last month, I don't think we will."
A Z3? He bought Cinderella a freaking Roadster? I suddenly didn't feel so guilty about the platinum earrings. In fact, I wondered how much I could get for them on eBay. Maybe enough to buy a gun. Because I was gonna shoot the bastard.
"I take it she hasn't seen him lately either?" I asked.
"Doesn't look like it. Detectives are questioning Mrs. Howe right now."
Mrs. Howe. To think just minutes ago I'd been contemplating myself in that role. And it was already taken. So what was I, the understudy?
No, shooting was too quick and painless a death for Richard. Maybe a slow poisoning. I wondered if Mom knew where to find arsenic on the internet.
"I'm sorry," Ramirez said. He looked uncomfortable, as if he might have to deal with a hysterically crying woman.
And he just might. I was quickly going through all five stages of grief. I was past denial (Ramirez wouldn't make a mistake like this) and was settling somewhere between anger (A freaking Z3!?) and bargaining (Lord, let her be an ex-wife and I swear I'll wear the Purple People Eater to my mother's wedding without complaint).
I may have been able to overlook embezzling. I may have been able to pretend I didn't see that condom wrapper on his desk. I may even have been able to overlook the fact that he had killers looking for him. But a wife? That was where I drew the line.
Suddenly the image of Richard being led away in handcuffs didn't seem all that bad. In fact, I could really get behind the idea of him rotting in jail for, oh, let's say, the rest of his lying, cheating life. He deserved it. In fact, he deserved worse than that. He was married to Cinderella! He deserved the chair.
I might have spilled my guts to Ramirez right then. Told him about the call from Greenway, my suspicions of Richard's involvement, everything. But out of nowhere the image of Molly's sonogram and the deformed Muppet came flooding back to me. Okay, I'm pretty sure that behind all that fuzz was a baby. Growing inside her right now. I wondered…did I have one of those in me? My eyes slid down to my belly, sausaged into the Purple People Eater. I might. And if I did, it was Richard's Muppet. No matter what he'd done, did I really want the father of my child rotting in jail?
I closed my eyes, took a breath, and gulped back my anger, preparing to perform my very first selfless act in the name of motherhood.
"I wish I could help you, but I've told you everything I know." D'oh, d'oh, d'oh! Being selfless really sucked. Not nearly as satisfying as good old fashioned revenge.
Ramirez sighed again, and I could see the disappointment in his eyes. "You sure about that?"
We both knew I wasn't. But I'd lied so much in the past few days, I figured one more wouldn't hurt. "Positive."
"Okay." He pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to me. "Call me if you have any sudden memory sparks."
I took the card. But I think we both knew it was going into the deep dark recesses of my purse never to see the light of day again. "I'm sorry you wasted your time coming here."
Ramirez paused, did his one eyebrow thing again, then looked me up and down. Despite my anger and frustration, the naked appreciation in his eyes as they settled on my wawas created a heat somewhere in my granny panties region.
His eyes slid up to meet mine, and I hoped he couldn't read the X-rated thoughts suddenly flooding my brain.
The corner of his mouth hitched up again. "Oh, I wouldn't say it was a total waste."
Damn. He was a good reader.
Before I could come up with a snappy comeback, Ramirez turned his back to me and walked out.
I staggered over to one of the white sofas and sat down. Or rather, tried to sit, as the gut pincher dress didn't allow for much bendage in the waist area. I closed my eyes and took in as many deep breaths as I dared without popping a seam. Only the deep breaths didn't do much good because the longer I sat there, the more time I had to think. And the more I thought about what Ramirez had told me, the angrier I became. Richard had a wife. Oh God. That made me the other woman. Richard had turned me into a walking cliché!
* * *
As Mom, Molly, and Mrs. Rosenblatt came back, tray of colorful beads in hand, I had one eye on the dress and one on the clock. I had to get to Dewy, Cheatum & Howe during Jasmine's break if I wanted to get any info about that phone call. And I so did want that information. In fact, I was on a mission now. I was going to smoke Richard out of hiding if it was the last thing I did. And once he showed his cheating little face, I was going to torture him until he sang soprano for the rest of his miserable little life.
Okay, fine, I wasn't really going to torture anyone. Truth was, I'd never even hit anyone before, and I wasn't too keen on the sight of blood. Just watching those cosmetic surgery shows made me squeamish. So, in reality, torture was out. But it was a nice thought to keep me smiling while I waited for Mom to pick out the perfect beads and for Jasmine's break to start.
By 12:03 Mom had decided on a faux pearl beading for the Purple People Eater, and I gracefully ducked out of Bebe's Bridal, praying there was no traffic on the 101. For once, the traffic gods were on my side, as there were no accidents and not a black and white in sight. I pulled up in front of Dewy, Cheatum & Howe just ten minutes before Jasmine was due back. I raced into the building, up the elevator, and came to a huffing stop at the front desk.
"Althea, thank God you're here," I said.
Althea looked at me, her eyes bulging behind her frames. "M-Me? Why?"
In her defense, I did come on a little strong. I took a breath and started again in a normal person's voice. (As opposed to a freaked out "other woman.")
"Listen, I have a tiny favor to ask."
Althea took a step away from the desk. "What kind of favor?" she asked slowly.
Uh-oh. Maybe Althea was smarter than I gave her credit for.
"I know Richard got a call in his office yesterday, and I was hoping you could check the call log and see if you could lift the number for me."
Althea bit her lip. "I don't know," she said slowly. "We're not really supposed to give out that information. Especially, with, you know…" She trailed off, her cheeks turning red. Apparently it was a little embarrassing to have an employer on the lam.
"You don't have to worry about that. I'm, uh, I'm actually working with the police to find Richard." A tiny fib. I was looking for Richard. The police were looking for Richard. It was kind of like we were working together.
Althea looked dubious. "Really?"
"Yep." I nodded so hard I felt my hair bobbing up and down.
"I…I don't know." Althea glanced down at the desk, avoiding eye contact. "Jasmine wouldn't like this."
I tried not to roll my eyes at the mention of Miss PP.
"Look, I really need that number." I leaned in closer with exaggerated importance. "I think Richard might be in danger."
Her eyes grew wide behind her thick frames. "Danger? What kind of danger?"
If it had been Jasmine asking, I'd have told her to go take a flying leap. But somehow I felt that with frizzy-haired, cardigan-wearing Althea, my secret was safe. I told her about the call from Greenway and my fear that Richard was hiding out from him. Or worse. Swimming.
Althea took it all in, her O of a mouth growing progressively wider. When I'd finished, she did a few myopic blinks, staring at me as if this was the most exciting thing to happen to her since Post-it started making colored pads.
"This is all so James Bond. But, are you sure we should be interfering? I mean, wouldn't this be better left up to the police?"
Yes it would. But as long as Richards's name was crawling up the list of Ramirez's suspects, I didn't have that option. So, I sweetened the deal. "I could get you in for a complimentary pedicure at Fernando's?
That did it.
"I'll be right back," she said, then disappeared behind the frosted doors in search of the phone records.
I stood at the front desk, anxiously tapping my nails on the mahogany surface. I glanced at the brass clock above Jasmine's desk. 12:23. I hoped Althea hurried.
Less than two minutes later she was back with a computer printout.
"Okay here are all the calls to Richard's office yesterday. There weren't many because, well, you know." She blushed like a beet again. "When did the call come in?"
I took the printout, scanning my finger down the page. I'd received the call from Greenway just before Jasmine came back from break yesterday. 12:27 a call was logged to Richard's office from an 818 area code. My heart was suddenly racing like the bus from Speed. It was a North Hollywood prefix. As of yesterday, Greenway was still in the area.
"I think maybe this one is it. Is there any way you can find out who owns the number?"
Althea clicked a few buttons on Jasmine's keyboard. "I can do a reverse look up." If I hadn't known better, I'd say Althea was beginning to enjoy this. Her eyes were shining behind her thick frames, her fingers flying at lightning speed across the keyboard. "Got it."
I tried not to sound too excited. "Whose number is it?"
"It says the Moonlight Inn in North Hollywood. You really think Greenway is hiding out there?"
I could have kissed her. "God, I hope so. Thanks, Althea."
"Thanks for what?"
I froze. I knew that helium perky voice. Jasmine.
Althea knew it too. Her head snapped up, a deer in the headlights expression frozen on her face.
I sent serious psychic vibes across the desk at her. Say nothing. Play dumb!
Althea must have got them because she quickly closed the window on her computer screen, obliterating all evidence of our noontime caper. Not that I was actually threatened by Jasmine. On her steady diet of laxatives and vitamin water she weighed about as much as a toothpick. However, I had a feeling she'd take inordinate pleasure in tattling on me to Ramirez.
"Thanks for what?" Jasmine asked again. "What's going on here?"
I tried to put on my innocent face. I opened my mouth, hoping some great lie would come out, but Althea beat me to it.
"I said I'd forward Richard's bills to his accountant's office. She didn't want his accounts going delinquent."
I stood and stared. Wow, Althea wasn't half bad at this cloak and dagger stuff.
Jasmine narrowed her eyes at me. (Or at least tried. They didn't move so well after her lid lift last May.) I wasn't sure she was buying it, but what could she say?
"Well, thanks again," I said, turning and walking as fast as I could out the doors. I could feel Jasmine's cold stare at my back all the way to the elevator. It was unnerving, like she was putting some Barbie hex on me. I was glad when the elevator arrived and I quickly stepped inside, punching the lobby button.
As soon as I was clear of the building, I pulled out my cell and punched in Dana's number.
"Hello?" she answered.
"I've got the number. It's the Moonlight Inn in North Hollywood."
Dana squealed with excitement on the other end. I had to hold the phone away from my ear to keep from going deaf.
"So," she asked. "What now?"
"I'll pick you up in twenty minutes. Get your Angels clothes on."
* * *
Nineteen minutes later I pulled up to Dana's duplex in StudioCity. It was a modest, stucco structure that she shared with four other aspiring actors slash personal trainers. Which meant it always smelled vaguely of costume makeup, gym socks and Rice-A-Roni (the struggling actor's treat).
I knocked on the door and was answered a couple beats later by No Neck Guy. I'd long ago given up trying to remember the names of Dana's roommates. Being an actor didn't exactly translate into steady income, and they tended to come and go like nomads. There had been Bubbly Blonde, Guy with Bleached Teeth, Latin Dancer Guy, and my favorite, Italian Guy Who Can't Keep his Hands to Himself. (Yuck!) No Neck Guy worked at the Sunset Gym with Dana and reminded me of the Incredible Hulk without all the green dye.
"Is Dana in?" I asked.
No Neck shrugged then bellowed through the house for Dana.
"Coming," she yelled from deep in the Actor's Duplex. No Neck Guy nodded at me then disappeared up the stairs. No Neck was a man of few words.
Three seconds later Dana bounced through the doorway, doing a little skipping footwork thing. Though one glance at her outfit took my attention quickly away from her feet.
"What are you wearing?" I stared, torn between the urge to laugh and cry.
"You like?" she asked, twirling in her doorway for me. She wore a tiny pleather miniskirt in a bright blue, spandex halter top that was at least two sizes too small for her well endowed D chest (another reason I hated her), a long strand of fake pearls (I know they were fake because they were neon green.) and had capped the whole thing off with a jet black pageboy wig. I won't even go into the makeup. I prayed she'd just come off the set of "Hookers for Hire."
Apparently I hadn't answered her yet, as Dana pouted her cherry red lips and put both hands on her exposed hips. "You don't like my spying outfit?"
"This isn't what Charlie's Angels wore."
"Well, duh! I was going for call girl."
"Okay, maybe this is a dumb question, but why are you dressed like a call girl?"
"See, here's what I was thinking. We're going need to get Greenway's room number. And if we just go ask the manager, he's going to tell us to get lost. But, looking like this…" She did another twirl, and her pearls clacked against her boobs. "He'll think we're hookers."
"But I don't want to be a hooker." Not a phrase I ever thought I'd have to say.
Dana ignored me. "I've got it all worked out. I did this scene for my acting class once from Pretty Woman, so I totally know how to act like a hooker. We'll tell the manager that we're meeting a john and can't remember his room number. Don't worry. People expect hookers to be dumb."
I rolled my eyes.
"Anyway, he's not going to want us banging on every door in his place until we find our john, now is he? Trust me, if we're dressed like this, guys are gonna be a lot more helpful."
That I didn't doubt.
"Dana, I just spent the morning as Barney in drag. I am not—N-O-T—" I spelled out for her, "spending the evening dressed as a hooker."
Dana put her hands on her hips again. She tilted her head to one side. She narrowed her eyes. Then she pulled out the big guns. "You peed on that stick yet?"
I sighed and willed my eye not to twitch.
"Fine. I'll be a hooker."
Fifteen minutes later Dana was coaching me on hooker-speak (which apparently consisted of a lot of "yo baby"s and "wa'sup dawg"s) and pulling dress after increasingly tiny dress from her closet. Finally she settled on a neon pink, strapless spandex thing that looked small enough to be a size negative two. She added a long red wig that reached clear down to my butt and a pair of four-inch acrylic heels chunkier than a Snickers bar.
As she sat me down on her bed to put the finishing touches on my makeup, I filled her in on Ramirez's latest news about Richard.
The great thing about really good friends is that they often get as upset as you, if not more, when your boyfriend does something really stupid. Like get married.
"That bastard. That cheating son of bitch. The motherfu—"
"My thoughts exactly." I cut her off before she got too colorful. She was, after all, in character.
"How could he be married? I mean, you've met his freaking mother!"
I'd been thinking the same thing. In fact my first irrational thought when Ramirez told me about Cinderella was, had all his family and friends been lying to me for the last five months? Had they all been briefed beforehand to keep Maddie in the dark? It was like I was contestant in a bad reality show. Only there was no cash payoff with this hoax.
But even as I listened to Dana cuss him out, I couldn't help a teeny tiny part of me from hoping that maybe Richard had an explanation for all this. And that wasn't just the denial talking. I knew Richard. Okay, so there were a few aspects of his life I wasn't privy to, but deep down I knew the man. I knew he was no more capable of leading a double life than he was of growing seven inches and playing for the Lakers. This kind of deception just wasn't in his makeup. Somehow, I knew there was a logical explanation for all of this, and I was having a hard time hating him as much as I should until I heard his side of the story. I just could not believe Richard was actually married.
Then again, I had a hard time envisioning him consorting with killers and yet, here we were.
"Okay, I'm done." Dana capped her lipstick and pulled back her closet door to reveal a full-length mirror. We stood side-by-side, and Dana put one arm around my shoulder. "Oh, this is going to be so much fun!" she squealed.
Again with that "fun" thing. Why did everyone think dressing up in dangerously ugly clothing was fun?
The wig itched a little, the spandex was riding up on my thighs already, but I had to admit as I stared in the mirror for the final effect, it was a good disguise. I looked nothing like myself. Thank God.
"Honey, we look fabulous," Dana said. "Let's go."
* * *
I'm not ashamed to say I had a knot in my stomach the entire drive up the 405. Well, that and a wedgie from the incredibly tight and unforgiving spandex causing my granny underwear to bunch. I shifted in my seat, promising myself I'd do laundry tomorrow.
We decided to ride in my Jeep as Dana said it looked more hookerish than her car. I wasn't sure if I should be offended by that or not. As we crawled through rush hour traffic, I couldn't help looking in my rearview mirror every two seconds for signs of a black SUV. I was a little paranoid about Ramirez spotting my car now. As if having him see me in the Purple People Eater wasn't bad enough, catching me as the Happy Hooker would probably kill me of embarrassment on the spot. Not to mention put a serious crimp in our plans.
Speaking of which…
"So, what is this Pretty Woman plan of yours? I mean, do we just walk up and ask what room Greenway is in?"
"Don't worry," Dana said, flipping down the visor to check her makeup, "just leave the talking to me."
Why is it when someone says "don't worry," it makes me worry even more?
"So," Dana asked, before I could question her further, "where exactly is this place?"
I consulted the directions I'd printed from Yahoo maps before leaving the Actor's Duplex.
"Lankershim and Vanowen in North Hollywood. We should be there in about twenty minutes."
Dana nodded, pulling out a tube of lipstick and lapsing into silence as she added another layer of Circus Clown Red.
We wove north up the 405 and through the hills, which were actually quite scenic, until we reached the 101 and started our descent into the Valley. As we neared the 134 split, I slowed down, exiting the freeway at Lankershim as we entered North Hollywood.
While Hollywood features famous landmarks, celebrity footprints, and glitzy tourist shops, North Hollywood's name is unfairly deceptive. North Hollywood is Hollywood's ugly stepsister. Homes have bars on the windows, '79 Oldsmobiles propped on cement blocks cover brown lawns, and old toothless men of every conceivable race sit on front porches yelling things like, "That my damn garbage. Touch that and I'll break yo' arm."
As we passed toothless man number three (yelling about the damn dog going on the damn lawn) I instinctively locked my doors. It wasn't that I was afraid of North Hollywood. Hey, I grew up in LA. It took a lot more than bars on a window to frighten me. But the way that toothless old man had been staring at me like he was counting his pennies had me worried about the kind of propositions two hookishly dressed young ladies might get in this neighborhood. I did a little yucky squirm in my seat at the thought.
"It should be up here on the right," Dana said, reading the addresses as we passed by a liquor store, a closeout furniture place and a Desi's Porn Palace.
My stomach began to feel queasy as we neared the address and I spotted a woman wearing my same spandex dress negotiating at the passenger side window of a dented caddy. Unlike Dana, I was no actress. Granted, I was exercising my truth-bending skills quite a bit lately (lying sounded so tawdry), but I wasn't quite sure I could pull off "hooker with a mission."
Too late to turn back now.
"Here it is." Dana pointed to a run-down motel on the right. Ten units on the bottom, ten on the top, and a metal staircase running along the side. A small building in front served as an office, and behind it I could see green dumpsters overflowing with trash. The beige, stucco walls of the motel had seen one too many nights of gang tagging, being a tri-colored mass of symbols that meant nothing to me but could likely get one shot at in South Central. The windows predictably sported prison-like bars, and the roof likely would have leaked buckets—if it ever rained in LA that is.
I pulled into a spot under a sickly looking palm. Dana got out and immediately adjusted her top. I followed suit, trying one last time, in vain I might add, to retrieve my grannies from my cranny.
"Dana, I don't know if I can do this." I glanced nervously at the front office. Or as the sign read, _ront O__ice. It looked like someone had shot out the fs.
Dana looked in the side mirror, adjusting her wig. "Relax. It'll be fine. Just leave the talking to me. I'm a sweet-talking expert." Dana gave me a wink.
I took a deep breath. Okay. I could do this. Maddie Springer, Happy Hooker Extraordinaire.